When I found out I was pregnant with my first, I quickly realized how little control I had over the safety of my own child. I could take all of my prenatal vitamins and do everything the doctor told me and something could still be wrong with the baby. I could buy the best car seat on the market and drive as safely as possible once that baby arrived and someone could still smash into my car. I could provide a safe home and someone could still put my child in an unsafe position. When you think about all of the horrific things that could happen to that baby in pregnancy, child birth, childhood and beyond, it is enough to make you a bit crazy. I realized I couldn't be a good parent if I worried about every single little thing so I took those vitamins, bought that car seat, baby proofed my home and tried to let all the other stuff go. I stayed neurotic about two things: car seat safety (which we'll delve into another day) and body safety.
The statistics on child sexual abuse are terrifying. Approximately 1 in 10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday and only about one third of those assaults will be identified, with even less being formally reported. While there are definitely risk factors that may increase a child's chances of being sexually abused, no child is immune. What's even more terrifying? 90% of child sexual abuse victims know their abuser. As a society we love to focus on "stranger danger" rather than confronting the fact that abusers are far more likely to be people that we love and trust. Doing so is a (very effective) coping mechanism. It is much easier for us to reconcile that the person that sexually offends children is the creepy man lurking alone in the public bathroom. We do not want to believe that the reality is that it is often our child's soccer coach, girl scout leader, grandfather, babysitter, teacher, librarian or even another childhood friend (yes, kids offend against kids too). Abusers build relationships with our children and us and thrive on them. It is the trusting relationship, ultimately, that allows that abuse to occur.
So how do we protect our kids from becoming one of these statistics? We become educated and we educate our children. It's just like anything else, really. There are dangers associated with just about everything your child does. If they ride bikes, they could fall off, be hit by a car or hit a pedestrian themselves. That's why we arm them with helmets and teach them about looking both ways, being aware of our surroundings and sharing the road with others. The same is true with child sexual abuse. If you don't want your child to become a victim, you arm them with all the protective factors and knowledge you can.
How do you do that?
#1 Talk to your kids:
On a regular basis have open, honest, age appropriate dialogues with your kids starting at an early age about their bodies, relationships and boundaries.
What does that look like?:
Use proper names for body partsWe call an elbow an "elbow" thus a penis should be known as a "penis." Using cute but inaccurate names for body parts makes disclosing abuse, should that ever be necessary, very confusing when you need to find out exactly what happened.
Teach children about boundariesBoundaries can encompass a variety of things. At a minimum you should be teaching your child that:
- Certain parts of their body are "private" which means that no one else can see, touch or take pictures of those parts AND that they should not be looking at, touching, or taking pictures of anyone else's private parts.
- Boundaries work both ways. Just like they should be allowed to dictate what happens to their bodies, others are allowed to do the same. Thus if someone says they don't like something, we stop doing it. Period.
Teach them that the above is true regardless of who the person isIn television and books, villains are often portrayed differently than the hero. They look mean, with over dramatized or unusual features (an ugly wart at the end of their nose, a hook for a hand, a patch over an eye). In cartoons and fairy tales, this makes villains easy to spot but in the real world the villains look just like you and me. Teach your child that even if it is someone they know and love or even another child that is doing any of the above, it is not okay and they need to tell you immediately.
Teach them how to get out of situationsAdults, regardless of their relationship with a child, are viewed as authority figures so it is often hard for children to tell them "No." Make sure your child knows that in some cases it is okay to tell an adult or an older peer "No" and help them identify other ways to get themselves out of uncomfortable or scary situations. Whether it is making up a lie about having to go to the bathroom or some other scenario, make sure your child has a way to exit that they are comfortable with.
#2 Have a strict "no secrets" policy:
Most offenders tell children that the abuse is a secret, not to be disclosed to others. Sometimes they make the child culpable in some way and tell them that they will be in trouble if they tell. Other times the secret is used to bond the child and the offender. Like a game that only the two are allowed to be part of which can make the child feel special and important. "Secrets" are often seen as the key ingredient to sexual abuse and that's why, in our house, we don't keep secrets. We don't differentiate between big secrets or little secrets, innocent secrets or bad secrets; all secrets are banned. We believe that if we teach our kids to be comfortable keeping small secrets (like that extra before-dinner cookie from grandma) then they may be more comfortable keeping big secrets like sexual assault. Instead we have "surprises." Surprises are fun things that we eventually share with people and that makes them happy. Secrets are usually meant to remain secret forever and they protect against things that would typically make people unhappy. So "surprises", yes. "Secrets," no. Like the above, this is something that we talk about and reinforce regularly.
Unfortunately there is no one way to guarantee that your child will never be sexually abused, but there are many ways to lower the chances of it occurring. Talking openly with your child about body parts, boundaries, relationships and body safety sets easy rules and expectations for your child to follow and empowers them to say "No" to inappropriate behavior and keeping secrets. It also sets the tone for open dialogue between you and your child so that should something ever happen, they feel comfortable in disclosing the abuse to you. All of this, in turn, can alert potential offenders to the fact that this may not indeed be a child they are able to coerce and offend against.